Monday, 18 April 2016

Toomas Karmo:
Essay on Green Catholic Hermits 

Quality assessment: 

On the 5-point scale current in Estonia, and surely in nearby nations, and familiar to observers of the academic arrangements of the late, unlamented, Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (applying the easy and lax standards Kmo deploys in his grubby imaginary "Aleksandr Stepanovitsh Popovi nimeline sangarliku raadio instituut" (the "Alexandr Stepanovitch Popov Institute of Heroic Radio") and his  grubby imaginary "Nikolai Ivanovitsh Lobatshevski nimeline sotsalitsliku matemaatika instituut" (the "Nicolai Ivanovich Lobachevsky Institute of Socialist Mathematics") - where, on the lax and easy grading philosophy of the twin Institutes, 1/5 is "epic fail", 2/5 is "failure not so disastrous as to be epic", 3'5 is "mediocre pass", 4.5 is "good", and 5/5 is "excellent"): 5/5. Justification: There was enough time to develop most or all points pretty fully, and to check for correctness of punctuation and basic correctness of many or most citations. 

Revision history:

  • UTC=20170120T0411Z/version 1.1.1: Kmo made a small handful of stylistic tweaks. 
  • UTC=20160419T0156Z/version 1.1.0: Kmo added quality assessment, subject headings, and  revision history. 
  • UTC=20160419T0001Z/version 1.0.0: Kmo uploaded base version (already reasonably well polished), and as a here-undocumented series of uploads over the period UTC=20160419T0002/20160419T005400Z made various tiny tweaks, as version 1.0.1, 1.0.2, 1.0.3, ... 

1. How for the Catholic mind, truth is incarnate

One of the reproaches occasionally made against Catholicism is that it is crammed with mechanics and ritual, that it indeed courts idolatry in its repeated insistence on the material. How wearisome - baffled non-Catholic people occasionally say, or at any rate in a polite way think - is that repeated Romish fiddling with rosaries and holy water, with incense, with altar cloths, with pilgrimage shrines, with alleged miraculous cures for one ailment and another (one recalls the tens or hundreds of crutches hanging from a ceiling at St Joseph's Oratory in Montreal). And above all, how wearisome is the unending Romish fuss with Paten and Chalice, with the Tabernacle! 

Could anyone, it is asked, even conceive of a more grievous perversion of a properly rational - of a duly symbolic, of a correctly immaterial, of a decently spiritualized - religious sensibility? 

But some writer has somewhere pointed out that for the Catholic mind, truth is incarnate. 

Further, somebody - I think C.S. Lewis (writing as an Anglican sympathetic to Catholicism) has made a distinctively penetrating remark on incarnational theology, which I paraphrase as follows: God, having invented matter, is fond of it. 

We humans, being ourselves animals in a species named for good or ill Homo sapiens, convey and assimilate lessons less through theorizing than through the force of material example. As they say in the York Regional Police, here in Ontario: Deeds speak. 

Who, in the whole field of post-1930 North American Catholicism, has given a more powerful teaching witness than those two practical figures, one from the USA and the other from Canada, Dorothy Day and Jean Vanier? 

And what Papal encyclical from the last four decades is likely to attract more notice from future historians of our time than the 2015 "climate change encyclical", Pope Francis's Laudato Si'

2. The way of the "green Catholic hermit"
as one incarnational way among others; "Dame Julia"

Each of us has to develop incarnational theology in his or her own little sphere, aware that there are multiple good ways to proceed, many of them not even amenable to ranking on some simplistic linear scale of comparative goodness. 

In my own work, I these days keep returning to one particular way, the way of the "green Catholic hermit". 

YouTube, while a colossal waste of the electricity, the silicon, and the time of hundreds of millions of people, nevertheless proffers a smorgasbord of pleasures, some of them even comparatively innocent. 

It is hard to resist the temptation to view clips from the BBC series "Yes, Minister". ("But we live in a democracy," pleads the junior civil servant reporting to the powerful Sir Humphrey Appleby, possibly a Permanent Under-Secretary in the "Ministry of Administrative Affairs", when the advisability - or, as it is comedically argued, the inadvisability - of more broadly empowering local governments comes up for discussion; "Bernard," Sir Humphrey explodes, "this is a British democracy.")  It is hard to resist the temptation to view clips from Jeremy Brett's performances as Sherlock Holmes (from Granada Television), or from Sir Alec Guinness's portrayal of a sleuthing George Smiley, purging MI6 of a high-ranking KGB operative (from the BBC). It is hard to resist the temptation to view clips of wolves and ravens; or of craftspersons binding books in the mediaeval manner, by sewing folded signatures onto cords, with boards which for special durability are shortly going to be covered in leather; or of a craftsperson printing a folio sheet, on a reproduction of Gutenberg's press; or of Prime Minister Chamberlain's radio address on the darkest Sunday morning in British memory (on 1939-09-03); or of Vera Lynn, not long after that Sunday, singing "When they sound the last All Clear"; or of Estonian folk troupes dancing the Tuljak (perhaps best is - an upload from  2013-10-01 by YouTube user "GErnesaks"); or of Russian bass Boris Schtokolov singing "Vecherniy zvon" ("Those Evening Bells"); or of USA mathematician Prof. Tom Lehrer parodying Soviet mathematicians in his "Lobachevsky Song" ("I have a friend in Minsk, who has a friend in Pinsk..."; I am reliably informed that this work, unlike some weaker Western would-be portrayals of Sovietica, is in its general tone and manner true to those "concrete Socialist realities"); or of Andre Rieu performing "Hava Nagila"; or of Ofra Haza singing "Yerushalayim Shel Zahav". 

But at the moment I find few or no temptations-to-view stronger than the temptation to view, yet again and for the umpteenth time, whether in the morning or right before crawling onto my modestly elevated sleeping mat at night, a 2015-11-16 Catholic News Service clip,, on green Catholic hermit Julia Bolton Holloway. Here we have a model for one particular kind of down-to-earth, incarnational, joyous, Catholic praxis. 

I will return to the theme of joy at the end of this essay. 

Readers wishing to digress into the wider theme of Julia Bolton Holloway - "Dame Julia", as I like to think of her, informally - can find abundant Web resources. There is her own Web domain, at There is a modest but serviceable quantity of Google-locatable press coverage. And there is her own Facebook page, retrievable by googling on  julia holloway italy facebook, or alternatively by pointing the browser directly to

Other resources are also relevant to the emerging green-hermit movement: 

  • For guidance on prayer, I have benefited from repeated forays, with pencil at the ready, into my copy of Sister Wendy on Prayer. (This 2006 book is one of the many by the eminent art critic, and hermit and consecrated virgin, Sister Wendy Beckett, at Quidenham in Norfolk.) 
  • I have found practical for my portions of the Liturgy of the Hours, in Latin and English. 
  • For some aspects of theology, notably questions surrounding shame and the Cross, I have made repeated resort to Sister Laurel O'Neil's "Stillsong Hermitage" blog at
  • I have drawn encouragement from some of the Web sites, notably, pastorally supporting the hermit movement. 

3. The Hermit Rule of Padre Justo, on eternity and on a world that is perishing

Here, however, I would like in a particular way to draw attention to two guiding passages from the "Regla para Eremitas" (Rule for Hermits") of Padre Fray Alberto E. Justo, O.P.  I reproduce this entire Rule (to which I may well have to return in later essays in this blog), as another of today's blog postings. I make the reproduction from, with Dame Julia's kind permission. 

Here I pick out (I repeat) just two salient points. On the first, I comment briefly. On the second, I comment at length. 

"Venture forth along the paths to Eternity lying before you now:" Yes. Catholic or not, we cannot help but marvel with St Francis de Sales, even as we marvel at Stokes's Theorem or Maxwell's Equations, when we think of the strange subjective blankness of the time when we were not yet forming in the womb - that country without sounds or colours, that Un-Country - and of the inevitability of our own death, with whatever meaning or meaninglessness it may or may not carry. (A second Un-Country, perhaps? Or "To sleep, perchance to dream"? Or more like waking up from sleep, and realizing amid tousled bedclothes and morning light on the modestly elevated sleeping mat, as the morning alarm rings on the smartphone,  that - no, that train, that luggage, that troublesome motel-room arrangement, that tedious discussion with engineers somehow attached to the Government of Canada, and somehow ever so interested in experimental aviation, with time running perilously short as those Government officials stand waiting, that whole complex administrative-and-public-service mess, was not worth getting upset about, did not in fact belong to that order of reality to which a scant 30 seconds ago it seemed to belong? 

"Do not be dazzled by illusions of a world that is perishing:" Yes, yes. Catholic or not, we cannot ignore the temporary character of our social, economic, and political arrangements.

Anyone born before 1955 can recall how different was the social and political world just a few decades ago. Here in Richmond Hill, in Ontario, the 1950s marked the final decade of robust, unthreatened farming, with the town or village of Richmond Hill a modest knot of streets isolated by a couple of kilometres of duly lamp-free fields from the David Dunlap Observatory. In economic terms, this was a time when the salary or wages of a single spouse sufficed to keep an entire family entertained, educated, housed, and fed.

How, with such radical changes taking place over just six past decades, can we hope to avoid equally radical changes over a comparable span in the future?

Anyone who has studied the Cold War can see how close we have come - and, by extension, how close we may once again come - to a swift transmogrification of our major cities into radioactive glass ashtrays, and to a gradual reduction of our surviving population to the conditions of 1346-through-1353 "Black Death" Europe. Those glass ashtrays would form in the first day, to cool down over perhaps the ensuing week. The reduction of the hinterland communities into a desperate, starving peasantry would take some years, as the survivors emerge from their basement fortnight to battle permanently insurmountable, and inexorably increasing, shortages of vaccine, of petrol, of lubricants, of tractor parts. After twenty years, there will be even a shortage, cutting many a newborn life short, of duly trained nurses and duly trained agronomic technicians.

Here are two illustrations of how close we have already come:

  • On 1962-10-27, in the "Cuban Missile Crisis", flotilla commander Vasili Alexandrovich Arkhipov, on board the submarine B-59, overruled Captain Valentin Grigorievitch Savitsky's proposal, made in desperation in the absence of radio links with Moscow, to launch a nuclear-tipped torpedo warhead against the USS Randolph
  • On 1983-09-26, in the context of the Korean Airlines Flight 007 downing and the NATO "Able Archer" exercise, senior officer Stanislav Yevgrafovich Petrov, at the command centre for the Oko nuclear early-warning system, suddenly found himself overruling the terrified shouts of his colleagues at the screens. S.Y. Petrov at this point ordered Oko to refrain from alerting Kremlin authorities, when Oko's (erroneous) computer system was indicating American launches of intercontinental ballistic missiles. 

Anyone who has read in the fossil-fuels-depletion literature can see that the current supply of fossil fuels is already in less happy shape than it was just 20 years ago. The total volume of extracted "liquids" is still high. But an increasing proportion of that volume now comes at a steep energy cost, through fracking and through tarsands heating.

It is additionally clear to anyone who has looked at this literature that the inevitability of an ultimate 21st-century decline in fossil fuels, eventually to economically catastrophic levels, is accepted by many or most experts. All that is disputed by the bulk of the expert disputants is the timing of events: can the industrial world keep "Business as Usual" going for fifteen years? or, rather, for fifty? No qualified authority that I can recall suggests "for five hundred years", or even - what is in the history of a nation, of a municipality, or of a well-run family a far-from-formidable span - "for two hundred".

Anyone who has pondered the multiple-decade graph for Mauna Loa observations of atmospheric CO2 concentrations, and who recalls second derivatives from calculus, will decipher a key message in the graph: not only is the CO2 concentration rising, but the curve is concave upward. In other words, the graph possesses a positive second derivative. This means that not only has the CO2 concentration been rising over the decades, but, further, the rise has itself over the decades been accelerating.

A radical decline in the fossil-fuels supply, with a new Great Depression in the medium-term future, may admittedly affect the CO2 trend for the better, perhaps taking the second derivative to negative values even as the first derivative stays above zero. But the CO2 concentration a few years ago already passed the 400-ppm threshold. What consolation can it be if, on some day in the medium-term future, the second derivative goes negative (making the graph concave downward, rather than concave upward), with the first derivative still positive (i.e., with the graph still rising)?

And the state of the Greenland melt in the 2016 northern-hemisphere late winter or early spring (among other current indicators) suggests that our CO2 history has already, as climate scientists say, "committed" the planet to some millennia of increased warmth, no matter what reasonably probable thing happens over coming decades.

So yes, Padre Pio is right to say, echoing Scripture, that the sociopolitical world we inhabit is passing away.

4. How to address the problems of eternity and of a world-that-is-perishing:
the general ideal of Christian public service

I will now spare myself a bit of effort by simply reproducing a theological discussion which I posted a few years ago to one of my private Web domains, in addressing fossil-fuels depletion and climate change. Readers wanting a little more, with a few more facts and figures on such things as electric cars  (in the language of the late, unlamented Estonian Soviet Socialist Republic, a kodanlik eputis, or "bourgeois frippery" - I gather that in the parlance of the then-central authorities, this is a "burzhuaznaya frivolnost", a буржуазная фривольность) can point their browsers directly to

In what remains of this section, I reproduce just the pertinent extract.

...we face a Dim Age, of a kind we encounter today in petroleum-starved Havana and electricity-starved Baghdad. Let us look no further out into the future than we now look back upon contemplating the dingy and war-weary Canada of 1945. The Toronto of that near-future time - of, say, 2075 or 2080 or so, when some fraction of today's newborns might still be in the workforce - will be a hot, dusty city of slums, in which most people walk or take a humble electric tram. We may imagine the electricity staying on a few hours a day for the poor, and twenty-four hours a day for their air-conditioned bosses (ensconced as they will be in their gated and guarded communities, in the manner of the occupation-forces Green Zone in Baghdad today). We may imagine squalor, disease, and civil unrest combining in their grim Malthusian reaping, as the less affluent strata in the urban population are reduced to numbers consistent with the biological carrying capacity of the biosphere.

We probably do not face a Spielbergian scenario of sudden breakdown. Rather, we face a slow, steady, inexorable decay. That is what the fall of Rome felt like from the inside, from the dusty and sweltering Roman street. The taxes in those days went up and up, the silver content of the denarius down and down. The Vandals, or the Goths, or the Huns, came and milled around and looted (or, in at any rate one case, at any rate according to the telling of a pro-ecclesial chronicler, got persuaded by the Pope of the day not to loot) and left and came again and left again or alternatively kind of hung around and hung around, and life went on and on, becoming a little less civilized with each passing decade.

Three English-language Internet essayists stand out as discussing the physical particulars of what is coming, diligently spelling out, in the concrete language of foodstuffs or tools or materials, what might be involved in a decay, as distinct from a dramatic Spielbergian crash. From the Catholic Worker movement, we have Robert Waldrop's "Life During the Great Oil and Gas Decline", at From the ranks of the radical back-on-the-land analysts, we have Ran Prieur's "The Slow Crash", at Finally, as a voice from (I believe) neopagan, specifically druidic, theology, we have John Michael Greer's "The Long Road Down: Decline and the Deindustrial Future", at

Although I would urge my readers to spend a half hour going through all three essays, right now (don't put it off, folks), I will herewith quote the three most hard-hitting paragraphs from Greer. (I should remind those among my readers who, like me, are Catholic that truth is truth, wherever we find it, and that we have a duty to enter into dialogue with the neopagan theologians even as we have a duty to emulate our bishops and cardinals in engaging the Schism Christians, the Reformation Christians, the Jews, the Muslims, the Buddhists, and the other great traditional confessions in dialogue.)

Leave out the deus ex machina of progressive and apocalyptic mythologies, map the results onto a scale of human lifespans, and a likely future emerges. Imagine an American woman born in 1960. She sees the gas lines of the 1970s, the short-term political gimmicks that papered over the crisis in the 1980s and 1990s, and renewed trouble in the following decades. Soaring energy prices, shortages, economic depressions, and resource wars shape the rest of her life. By age 70, she lives in a beleaguered, malfunctioning city where half the population has no reliable access to clean water, electricity, or health care. Shantytowns spread in the shadow of skyscrapers while political and economic leaders keep insisting that things are getting better.

Her great-grandson, born in 2030, manages to avoid the smorgasbord of diseases, the pervasive violence, and the pandemic alcohol and drug abuse that claim half of his generation before age 30. A lucky break gets him into a technical career, safe from military service in endless wars overseas or "pacification actions" against separatist guerrillas at home. His technical knowledge consists mostly of rules of thumb for effective scavenging, cars and refrigerators are luxury items he will never own, his home lacks electricity and central heating, and his health care comes from an old woman whose grandmother was a doctor and who knows something about wound care and herbs. By the time his hair turns gray the squabbling regions that were once the United States have split apart, all remaining fuel and electrical power have been commandeered by the new governments, and coastal cities are being abandoned to the rising oceans.

For his great-granddaughter, born in 2100, the great crises are mostly things of the past. She grows up amid a ring of sparsely populated villages surrounding an abandoned core of rusting skyscrapers visited only by salvage crews who mine them for raw materials. Local wars sputter, the oceans are still rising, and famines and epidemics are a familiar reality, but with global population maybe 15% of what it was in 2000, humanity and nature are moving toward balance. She learns to read and write, a skill most of her neighbors don't have, and a few old books are among her prized possessions, but the days when men walked on the moon are fading into legend. When she and her family finally set out for a village in the countryside, leaving the husk of the old city to the salvage crews, it never occurs to her that her quiet footsteps on a crumbling asphalt road mark the end of a civilization.

Maybe we will have a Green Zone for Toronto's wealthy, as I imagined above, even long after 2100. Maybe, on the other hand, the deep troubles, with Toronto dismantled into villages and cropland in the manner of the Detroit chronicled at, will come even sooner than the turn-of century epoch John Michael Greer envisages in the last of his just-quoted paragraphs. Detailed questions of timing are peripheral. We may indeed expect different cityscapes to decline at different rates, with Detroit and New Orleans and the erstwhile Soviet "closed cities" around Baikonur the wretched pioneers, and with some wisely governed communities holding out in the manner of mediaeval Byzantium. What is central is, rather, this, that the odds in history's casino favour an overall, decade-upon-decade, trend of radical, relentless decline, for most of the world's industrial cities.

What, I now ask, am I to do as a worker in a community whose lights are dimming? I answer that the rational course for me is something obvious and familiar. It is a course already mapped out in our historical record, as the appropriate course for a contemplative and pacifist citizen of fifth- or sixth-century Rome. Like the colleagues of Saint Benedict of Nursia, a founding father of European monasticism, I am to live in my dying culture without interiorizing its sterile values. I am to help in some small way to build "a new society in the shell of the old", as they say in the Catholic Worker movement (in which I try to participate, as time and state of emotional health allow). This means living a life informed and governed on the one hand by Christian contemplation, on the other hand by ideals of Christian public service.

5. The ideal of Christian public service articulated in detail,
in a green-hermit context 

The particular ideal of public service to which I would now particularly point is successfully articulated in Toscana by the already-cited "Dame Julia". Dame Julia herself works not on the David Dunlap Observatory and Park (DDO&P) conservation case, but on a different side of heritage conservation, on Firenze's "English Cemetery".  In future postings, I will have to write more about heritage conservation, including its DDO&P side. For the moment, I will finish, by writing on a rather simple aspect of Catholic-hermit incarnational theology - on my ideal, that is, for a hermitage. In this writing, I have in mind the beautiful photos available on the Web of Dame Julia's hermitage (particularly of her 5,000-volume scholarly library, which she makes a place of refuge, and a place of schooling, for a specially disadvantaged people, the Roma ("Gypsy") immigrants in Firenze).

I proceed, however, in a different direction from Dame Julia, sketching in words a different kind of hermitage.

Mine is a Hermitage-of-the-Imagination, with some tangential relevance to my actual modest (basement flat) living conditions. It possesses, also, some greater resemblance to what I would like some day to set up, God willing, perhaps back home in Estonia, say in rural Tartu County: 

The Hermitage stands ten or twenty or fifty or a hundred metres away from the actual work space (a workshed crammed with some hundreds of books, and with ham-radio gear, and with other tools). We do not today pause over the workshed, important though it is to an incarnational theology. Rather, we confine out brief inspection to the Hermitage itself. 

This is a small structure, in some such strong material as cordwood masonry or fieldstone or brick, with a roof  in tiles or slates. 

Truth for the Catholic mind being (to reiterate) incarnate, this space serves as an incarnation of the current hermit's theologizings. It is additionally hoped that over coming decades, after the current hermit's passing into his Morning Sunlight, this same structure will be used by a multi-century succession of other hermits - or, failing that, at least by some worthy community, such as a university or a science-specialized Republic-of-Estonia gümnaasium, in need of a contemplative rural space for a succession of its more senior brain-workers. 

Around the Hermitage is a mixed stand of birch and (the possible Tartu County setting notwithstanding) that  emblem of Canada, that practical hardwoods the Acer saccharum sugar maple. 

What do we find as we push open the heavy oaken door, noting with satisfaction the smooth turning of duly lubricated, William-Morris-mediaeval, wrought-iron hinges? 

Inside the Hermitage there is, of course, the Crucifix, with other necessary arrangements for small private liturgical and literary, and mathematics-physics, activities. 

There is, of course, adequate natural light inside, from lattice windows with small panes. Such panes will be practical in the remote future, toward which the Hermitage is travelling like a ship in the troubled September Baltic, where the waves can mount high: this is a future in which the demise of industrial civilization may even render it impractical, for whatever jurisdictions keep crafts going, to produce much glass. 

But above all, our attention is drawn to two happy features of the contemplative space. 

On the one hand, there is the floor - in brick, sloping to a small centre channel, for ease in washing with a bucket of cistern water under the simple conditions of our post-industrial future - and relieved in its starkness by a small rug hooked in vegetable-dyed wools. 

On the other hand, there is the hearth. This is an energy-efficient Rumford fireplace, in the manner less of Henry David Thoreau's fireplace (in his Year One at Walden Pond) and his metal stove (in his Year Two) than of that celebrated 2010-era showcase for simple living, Northern California's "Innermost House". 

On seeing the sunshine puring in on rug, on brickwork, on the hearth ashes, on the trivet with its copper kettle, on the small cast-iron baking vessel, we recall an insight of English hermit Sister Wendy Beckett. Joy, says Sister Wendy, although embodying a commitment to happiness, is a thing deeper, and in a sense sterner, than happiness.

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